A honorary job

Ashley Cole with a golden cap presented to him to mark his 100 caps for England.-AP

Overall in football, captains fulfil no more than a token role. It is the manager who decides on tactics, the manager who sits on the dug out or stands in the limited area outside it near the touchline, writes Brian Glanville.

What a furore over the recent appointment of Ashley Cole as England’s captain at Wembley against Ireland. This, to celebrate his winning of a hundred international caps, though in fact this was his 102nd. One commentator after another deplored the appointment of a player who beyond doubt had a very dubious record of behaviour.

When Cole, with surreptitious means, insisted on getting away from Arsenal, the club which had developed the left back, he said he was enraged by the fact that they had offered him a mere GBP55,000 a week. Joining Chelsea, what might visibly be described as his romantic life has been a torrid maelstrom, a string of affairs with other women ultimately ending his marriage to the singer Cheryl Cole. At the Chelsea training ground at Cobham he had once shot a young apprentice with an air gun — which he didn’t know was loaded — and didn’t apologise. Lining up in support of that infinitely contentious Chelsea and England captain and his friend John Terry, he publicly insulted the Football Association and was heavily fined.

Previously Terry himself, whose career was littered with unsavoury incidents, had actually been deprived by the FA of the England captaincy when accused of racially insulting the Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. Though, this was contentiously done by the chairman of the FA David Bernstein before Terry had even been put on a trial which briefly exonerated him at Westminster Magistrates Court.

Roy Hodgson, the decent England manager, obviously embarrassed by the Cole captaincy imbroglio, had some logic when he said, “It amazes me that such an event can cause such consternation.” But in his amazement and seeming bewilderment, he hardly made things better by announcing that although Cole would lead the team out, then to be presented with the ritual golden cap, Frank Lampard would remain the captain. Which, in the event, he didn’t.

Moreover where 100-cap players and captains are traditionally expected to address the England fans the evening before a match, Cole didn’t. Nonetheless the fans who have booed him at Wembley in the past on this occasion did applaud him.

Yet did any of it really matter? Is the captaincy of England such a sacred trust, an inspiration to the young? Certainly, the Italians hardly thing so. There, the captain of the national team, the Azurri, is simply the player with the most international caps. Many years ago, I remember a situation in which both Fiorentina full backs, Aldo Magnini and Sergio Cervato had exactly the same number of caps. How to resolve the problem? Simple! Give the captaincy to whichever, in this case Aldo, had the greater number of international B caps.

Overall, captains fulfil no more than an honorary role. This by contrast with cricket, where the captain fulfils an essential role. He it is who decides the position of the fielders, he who decides on the choice of bowlers.

But in football at large, it is the manager who decides on tactics, the manager who sits on the dug out or stands in the limited area outside it near the touchline, giving advice, where it can be heard above the noise of the crowd and from time to time giving instructions via players who come close to him.

Having of course decided what formation and approach are to be followed, before the game. With more advice and instruction to be given in the dressing room, during the half-time interval.

How many outstanding captains have there be over the years? For that matter, how many of them are there now?

How many could or would dare to do what Ferenc Puskas, inside left with the formidable left foot, did in Hungary’s dressing room at Wembley before they went out to thrash England 6-3, the first time any foreign team had won on English soil. Before the game in the dressing room the players were treated to a long rigmarole from Gustav Sebes, a senior Government Minister and sporting overlord.

Once he had left the room Puskas told the team to forget all that; and said this is what we will do.

One thinks of that wonderfully fluent, both on field and off it, Northern Ireland right half skipper of Tottenham Hotspur and his country, Danny Blanchflower. Full of ingenious ideas, technically superb, he was the inspiration of the Irish team which knocked mighty Italy out of the 1958 World Cup qualifiers.

I remember him telling me what happened in the Tottenham dressing room in Rotterdam before the 1963 European Cup Winner’s Cup final.

Bill Nicholson, Spurs manager, gave a team talk which lauded almost every player in the opposing Atletico Madrid side. Seeing his team’s heads go down, Danny, when Nicholson had gone, gave a counter team talk eulogising the talents of his own team. Heads went up again; Spurs went out and won 5-1.

Johan Cruyff with Ajax and Holland, Franz Beckenbauer with Bayern Munich and West Germany were massive influences; as was Argentina’s Alfred di Stefano with all conquering Real Madrid. Even Puskas when he went there had to bow to him, Di Stefano leading Real Madrid to the first five European Cups.

Real’s managers hardly mattered. But where are such skippers today, in a football world where captains scarcely do much more than toss up before the kick off?